How To Safely Open A Can Without A Can Opener


It’s happened to nearly all of us: we pack a half dozen cans of food for a camping trip or an overnight AirBnB adventure, but we forget the can opener. Suddenly our hungry stomachs rumble. Should we call off the fun just because we’re stymied by a thin metal can?

Just because we’re short on can openers or other specialty tools meant to pry open metal cans doesn’t mean we have to go hungry. People have been opening tin cans for decades without using a can opener. Several methods should work for you.

And it’s not always a camping or foreign setting that might call for ingenious opening ideas. Sometimes your home opener is missing. Sometimes you just forget to prepare. No matter the occasion, we have the solution for how to open a can without a can opener.

First Steps To Follow

Before you reach for the nearest sharp stick or dull kitchen utensil to pry off the can cover, it’s worthwhile to identify some things. First of all, not all cans are made of the same materials. According to the Food Packaging Forum, cans are constructed out of three different metals:

  • Aluminum
  • Tin-coated steel or tin-plate
  • Electrolytic chromium coated steel or ECCS

While it’s not possible to verify 100% which type of can you’re handling, some guidelines may help identify your can. Tin cans are most commonly used for beverage containers. Why? They’re better at preserving light-colored juices and acidic liquids.

Another way to identify which type of can you have is the shape. Generally speaking, food and liquid contents come in two types of can construction:

  • Two-piece cans (in which the bottom and sides form one part and the lid the other)
  • Three-piece cans (in which the side or circumference is separate from the top and bottom)

The walls of the cans are welded to the attached components. Therefore, two-piece cans are usually stronger and harder to pierce if you attempt to open them from the bottom.

How do you tell if you have a stronger two-piece can or a weaker three-piece can?

Two-piece cans usually contain sugary liquids, juices, candies, canned fish like tuna and sardines, ready-to-eat meals, foods preserved in water and oil, and others.

Three-piece cans contain all other food types, and rarely liquids.

We recommend you try to ascertain your particular can type before attempting to open it. By doing so, you’ll be better prepared for breaking the metal seal. Plus, you’ll have more information in the future on how to deal with a can opener-less situation.

Photo by Pamela Callaway on Unsplash

Guide On How To Open A Can Without A Can Opener

As you might expect, people have been cleverly devising new ways to open cans from the moment that food-safe cans were invented. Therefore, there are dozens of strategies.

We want to simplify all the existing methods into an easy-to-understand guide. So, we’ve chosen the most popular opening methods and put them into two main categories:

  • Piercing strategies
  • Blunt force strategies

These categories signify the two primary ways to crack open a can. And if you think about it, the two ways are commonsensical: either strike the can open with a sharp object or a blunt object. In the following guide, we’ll break down a few ways to open a can without a can opener in each category. Let’s get started.

Piercing Strategies:

1.    Use A Sharp Knife

Odds are, if you’re in a kitchen or domestic space, you’ll have a sharp knife handy. In camping situations, it’s also likely you can fetch a knife to get the job done.

First, a caveat: we don’t recommend you use a sharp knife to open a can unless you’re confident with knives. The longer the knife, the more risky this operation gets. So, keep that in mind. We have plenty of alternative methods on the list that aren’t risky at all.

If you choose to open a can with a knife, find the smallest sharp knife you can. The ideal blade would be a swiss army knife or other dagger-like short knives. Why short knives? The less length, the less chance you have to slip, cut yourself, or injure yourself on a jagged edge.

First, wedge the blade into the sealed top. (Ensure you’re not working on the bottom of the can!) Then, using a tool for a hammer, gently tap the knife butt until the can cracks open.

Finally, begin to slide the knife in a back-and-forth motion until you open enough of the lid to insert the blade fully to release the seal. Don’t grasp the freshly-cut can edge. It can easily cut flesh even if the metal appears dull.

knife to open a can
Photo by Anthony Walker on Unsplash

2.    Use Tin-Snips

Again, if you’re at home or near a workshop, you can reach for tools that will do the job pretty well in case you’ve lost a can opener. In an outdoor situation, this method may not be relevant.

Tin snips are as close to can openers that you’re likely to have. All you have to do is grasp the snips like a pair of scissors and cut them into the area where the walls meet the lid. After a few pulls, you should expose enough of the inside for you to insert the snips directly into the open can and wedge the rest of the lid off.

can opener
Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

3.    Have a Puncture-opener?

Before the can openers that we’re familiar with today were designed, people all over the world used a tool called a puncture bottle-opener or church key. If you were born anytime after the mid-nineties, you might not know about these tools.

At any rate, old-school bottle openers were used to pierce beer cans, condensed milk cans, and other liquid-carrying metal cans. Look around your kitchen or in the bottom of old tackle boxes, and you might find one.

To open a can with these legacy tools, simply hook the piercing edge around the lip of the can. Lever the sharp beak-like end into the tin-top, and you’ll open it with ease. Repeat the puncture movement as long as necessary until the can is open to your liking.

Blunt Force Strategies:

4.    The Spoon Rubbing Technique

Now that we’ve left behind the piercing methods, we have come to the less dangerous but slower blunt force techniques. The first tool you can use to slowly open a can is actually a spoon!

The spoon rubbing method takes advantage of the thin layer of metal laying just over the lid seal by slowly working it away with pressure. You can easily replace the spoon with a screwdriver or any other blunt tool that’s comfortable in your hand.

You’ll want a comfortable tool because this method can hurt your hand. Essentially, grasp your flat tool and rock it back and forth over the metal seal.

Continue rubbing across the seal (the weak point where the lid meets the sides of the can) until you make an indentation. Once you’ve pressed a dent in the seal, it’s only a matter of time until the seal breaks. Then, simply insert the edge of your tool and pry the lid off.

5.    Rock Or Hard Surface

 If you don’t have any handheld tools nearby, there’s still a solution for how to open a can without a can opener. Use a blunt object like a stone or rock formation to do the opening for you.

This method is simple. First, search for a flat, hard surface. You want it to be abrasive to the touch but not so irregular that you can’t rub the can over it.

Take the can and flip it over, so the lid is in contact with the abrasive surface. Commence to scratch the can over the rock or stone. The harder you press, the faster it will take.

Once the lid is worn away, it will start to leak the contents of the can. At that point, stop, flip the can back over, and squeeze the can on the side until the seal breaks. Done.

Photo by Jeff Siepman on Unsplash

6.    Use The Back End Of A Knife

The area of the knife closest to your hand before the handle is called the heel or back end. This part of the knife is extremely sturdy but not as sharp as the far end. You can use it to open a can by blunt force.

Wielding the knife as normal, direct the heel at the vulnerable point of the can where the lid meets the sides. The strike you’re looking to deliver to the can isn’t sharp or violent but steady and repeated.

Continue striking the edge of the can with the knife heel. You should be making small indentations around the circumference. Eventually, you’ll notice the can weakening. Deliver a final stroke at the edge of the can until the seal pops. Turn the knife over and wheedle it into the opening until you remove the lid entirely.

In Summary

It stands to reason that we call tin cans a basic staple of our modern life but struggle the moment we lack the tools to open them. It’s a little embarrassing that we have to resort to primitive methods–punching and knocking our ways to food–when we lack the simplest tools.

But it’s also edifying. It’s a time for us to practice our prepping skills and train our resourcefulness. So, whenever a friend asks you how to open a can without a can opener, consider sharing this article. Who knows, maybe you’ll discover a brand new way to do it.


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